Indigenous Knowledge: The key to Biodiversity Conservation

Joseph Goko Mutangah initially became involved in biodiversity conservation during the course of his research when he grew concerned about the deliberate degradation of natural habitats and loss of biodiversity in many Kenyan natural habitats, particularly indigenous forests. With other research scientists, he formed Habitat Restoration Initiative for Eastern Africa in 1998 with the objective of restoring degraded habitats in the region. The initiative later became a committee of Nature-Kenya, which operates under the umbrella of the East African Natural History Society. “Currently my interest and insights in ecological and habitat restoration is expressed through my newly formed African Center of Tropical Ecology,” he says.

For the last 10 years, Mutangah has been in charge of the Kenya Resource Center for Indigenous Knowledge. He explains the center’s activities: “We document Indigenous knowledge of food and medicinal plants with an aim to preserve and disseminate traditional knowledge attached to the natural biological resources, and how such knowledge can add value in the overall conservation and sustainable management of natural habitats and ecosystems. The change of lifestyles among many societies in the world has greatly influenced the change of culture, traditional rights and rites, and more importantly dietary habits. The modern trend of migration of local people from rural to urban and back, modern education systems, modern food diets and medical care, as well as environmental changes, have all significantly contributed in making Indigenous knowledge and cultural heritage not only vulnerable but seriously endangered. This threat of extinction of our culture and its embedded Indigenous knowledge has inspired me to work towards ensuring its protection and continued use in guiding the younger generation in our society towards sustainable utilization and management of our natural resources, including environmental protection.”

He continues, “In Kenya, both the Kenya Wildlife Service and Kenya Forest Service have realized they cannot successfully protect the wildlife in their natural habitats without involving the local people. Their past efforts and experiences have taught them the importance of joint management for effective and realistic conservation. For example, in regards to the Kenya Forest Service managed forests, the local communities are allowed limited access into the forests for extracting firewood and sustainable harvesting of grass as fodder for their livestock and medicinal herbal materials. This understanding and mutual respect ensures sustenance of the natural biological resources and improved livelihoods of the local Indigenous people living around the habitats of wildlife conservation areas.”

Today in Kenya, Indigenous Peoples (particularly those that depend on forests) regularly face the threat of biodiversity loss, a factor that may affect their quality of life due to land degradation and deforestation. Mutangah sees the illegal extraction of timber, charcoal burning, and land encroachment as the major issues causing environmental degradation on Indigenous land. “Reduction of grazing land due to unplanned settlement and reduction of available water as a result of drying up of rivers are some of the factors that have threatened the lives of Indigenous people in Kenya. The Indigenous people cannot access important natural resources they used to enjoy, such as traditional foods and medicines, adequate water supply, game meat, and honey due to excessive exploitation of the habitats,” he says. 

Still, Indigenous Peoples remain resilient and are fighting to regain and maintain their cultural lifestyles and ancestral land. According to Mutangah, the majority of Indigenous people in Kenya are pastoralists who used to own their land communally and have managed to maintain their designated grazing areas as intact as possible. However, Indigenous people who live in and around the forests, mainly as gatherers and hunters, are facing pressure to change their lifestyles. Mutangah says they are in constant discussion with the government, which sometimes evicts them out of the forest: “But the outcry of the affected people and that of the general public make the government sometimes withdraw or suspend its eviction orders. Both the pastoralists, who live mainly in dry areas, and the forest dwellers, have a very rich traditional culture of protecting the environment whereby they coexist with nature with little disturbance. This aspect has made these two groups of Indigenous people maintain their cultural heritage and the rest of the biodiversity without harming them to alarming levels.”

Last year Mutangah began serving on the Permanent Forum as a government-nominated member. He considers the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples a victory in legislative achievement for Indigenous Peoples. On the local level, he points to Kenya’s new constitution (2010) in which the rights of Indigenous people in Kenya are enshrined. “This is one of the greatest tools Indigenous communities can use to claim and protect their rights,” he says, adding that pushing for writing of the policies regarding the rights and issues affecting the minority and marginalized people (Indigenous people) is currently going on through the National Gender and Equality Commission of Kenya, which is mandated to look after the welfare of the minority and marginalized communities in Kenya.

Since becoming a member of the Permanent Forum, Mutangah says, “we as members of the Forum have discussed many issues about Indigenous people globally and have passed many resolutions to the United Nations Economic and Social Council—especially resolutions that emanated from presentations and discussions of last year’s conference in April-May 2014.” He has also participated in similarly related local and international conferences and workshops, including the United Nations Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (UNREDD), held in Arusha, Tanzania, and a workshop in Kenya organized by the National Gender and Equality Commission on Marginalized and Minority Communities in Kenya.

Looking to the future, Mutangah says, “As an environmental research scientist, having worked with local communities for a long time integrating science and Indigenous knowledge, I look forward to those strategies that will improve the environment and at the same time improve the livelihoods of the local people. My specific goals include understanding species composition, population dynamics, and protection status of relic natural habitats in areas with heavy human pressure with an attempt of ecosystem rehabilitation. I am interested in the restoration of native tree species, especially those with economic importance in the community farmlands for improving environmental quality and community livelihoods. And I will continue working with local communities in achieving their environmental, social-cultural, and economic aspirations as well as their human rights—all geared toward efforts of reducing poverty and promotion of human dignity among Indigenous Peoples. Globally, the greatest tool Indigenous communities can use to protect their rights is to negotiate with the concerned authorities: having an open mind for them to be recognized, their rights respected, restored, and compensated where possible in areas where such rights might have been violated, whether politically, economically or socially.

Image: Joseph Goko Mutangah. Photo Courtesy of UNPFII.

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